Sally (Madison) is sent to live with her father Alex (Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Holmes) at the Rhode Island mansion they are renovating. While playing in the gardens, Sally discovers the skylight of a hidden basement in the undergrowth. Despite the dire warnings of the groundskeeper that it is not safe, and especially for children, Alex and Kim decide to investigate. The withdrawn and lonely Sally develops a fascination with the basement, especially when she hears voices emanating from the basement’s sealed fireplace.
Based on 1973 US TV movie, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark marks the feature debut of Troy Nixey, but the influence of the film’s producer and co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro can be seen throughout the film. Early scenes of Sally discovering an apparently magical secret garden clearly echo Pan’s Labyrinth, as does the theme of a child alone at the mercy of malevolent supernatural forces ignored by adults. The original TV movie did not feature a child at all, instead focussing on the wife, so this is a major addition in this remake. I won’t give away the details of the threat facing Sally, but when it is revealed it is very recognisably del Toro. Director Nixey puts things together well but time will tell if he emerges from the considerable shadow of his fan boy favourite producer in the way Matt Reeves has emerged from the shadow of J. J. Abrams after Cloverfield.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is also highly evocative of 1980’s horror and fantasy films, particularly Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (another film where the producer overshadowed the director), and Joe Dante’s Gremlins. It has a similar high gloss feel to films of this period, and a very Spielbergian child’s eye-level point of view. This is most definitely a horror film, but one aiming to provide the sort of carnie rollercoaster ride offered most recently by the likes of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, and James Wan’s Insidious.
Although the film ostensibly stars Katie Holmes and Guy Pierce, it really belongs to Madison. This is just as well as I remain unconvinced by Holmes’ merits as an actress, and Pierce has to play one of those classic horror doofus type characters, the father who doesn’t believe anything weird is going on until far too late. Madison gives a great performance as Sally, managing to get across the character’s loneliness, without resorting to schmaltz. There is an interesting aside to her character when it is revealed that she is taking medication (in this case the ADHD medication Adderall), this may explain some of her actions early in the film and adds poignancy to the character.
Another key factor in the film’s success is some quite outstanding production design by Roger Ford whose past credits include Babe, and the Narnia films. Ford’s designs for the mansion and its surrounding gardens manage to mix fairytale and pagan imagery but are always convincingly real, rather than going for Tim Burton gothic. Scary as things get, the mansion does look like it could end up on the cover of Good Housekeeping. Fans of furniture porn are well catered for here.
Ultimately the film is good, but falls short of greatness. While there are some very good fright sequences, it feels like it could have used a few more. Holmes and Pierce lack onscreen chemistry and their characters are somewhat two dimensional; they never convince as a real couple in the way that Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne did in Insidious. It should also be mentioned that there is a moment when Pierce and Alan Dale share a scene. For British viewers of a certain age, reuniting Jim Robinson and Mike Young from Neighbours onscreen is strangely startling.
There is more than enough here for me to happily recommend this to horror enthusiasts, just don’t expect the horror movie of the year.